Sean Healy is hanging up his boots. After 50 years striving to make the world cop on to the imperative of societal equality, he is stepping away.
Now 77, the Society of African Missions priest, along with his confederate, Sr Brigid Reynolds, is retiring from the organisation they founded: Social Justice Ireland.
He is not putting on the slippers yet. Passion doesn’t retire. He will continue to root around in the entrails of economics to show that societal equality is imbued with common sense. But he won’t be showing up at the office to put in the daily shift. He has accepted that concessions are now required in the perennial battle with time.
“It’s important for me and for Brigid to step out of our roles,” he said.
“We have for years wanted to build up to capacity where it can manage without us and we now have a strategic plan and a very good team in place and the work we are all doing is appreciated by a lot of people, although it might be that appreciated by those who come into the line of fire.”
Healy has for decades been the public face of the sector which has the function of researching and presenting evidence to show that there is a better way of doing things, that there does not have to be the levels of poverty that are tolerated, that values can be brought to the fore in public policy.
Others, often his co-religionists such as Fr Peter McVerry and Brother Kevin Crowley, work at the frontline of economic deprivation.
Cork-born Healy has occupied the role of attempting to shape public policy in order to lighten the burden of deprivation.
The fire burns as bright as ever. Just last month, he was still at it, appearing before an Oireachtas committee to demonstrate how a high-powered body — the Commission on Taxation — had got their sums wrong in attempting to rubbish a project that is dear to him, the implementation of Universal Basic Income. The concept of Universal Basic Income, where every citizen is given a basic income irrespective of circumstances, is gaining traction as the world goes through a post-pandemic reassessment.
But Healy and others have for years been advocating for it as a means to providing everybody with the dignity of access to the basics. Down through the years, he has had the ear of taoisigh, most famously in 2004 when he addressed the Fianna Fail parliamentary party in its pomp in Inchydoney, Co Cork.
More recently, he had an encounter with Leo Varadkar which spoke volumes, but more of that later.
Early life and career
Sean Healy was born into a family of eight in the Cork City suburb of Blackrock.
“My father was unemployed when I was born and I was five before he had a steady job as a truck driver,” he says.
“There was a contrast between what the large majority like my father had and others who were well off or had done well. I didn’t have any clear idea about social justice in those days but subconsciously something must have been there.”
The Society of African Missions was based across the road from the family home.
“I had been very influenced by some of the clergy who had come back from Africa, and I decided that was what I wanted to do.
“I joined a seminary the autumn after my leaving and in July 1970 when to Africa.”
Nigeria was his destination. He worked in the north of the country, an area where in more recent years the terrorist organisation, Boku Haram, has been active. Healy says:
The place where I worked, the parish priest there was kidnapped a while back and he was released after five weeks.
“He was one of the lucky ones — not that anybody is lucky to be kidnapped, but the fact that he came out alive — because a lot of people, including a lot of clergy have lost their lives in that space in recent years.
“But back in those days [when he lived there], there was none of that.” It was in Nigeria where he first noted how economic decisions usually taken at several removes from people’s lives have the power to impact.
“One of the things I learned was that an enormous amount of the problems faced in Africa were never going to be solved by Africans alone because of the decision making outside of Africa,” he says.
“African countries were in hoc to the IMF and the world bank and that was the first time I came across the IMF which I would subsequently meet here in Ireland.”
After studying for a PhD in economics in the US he returned to Ireland where he, Sr Brigid, and Fr Bill McKenna, a Jesuit, were given space within the conference of religious of Ireland to set up a social justice office.
The conference, an umbrella group for religious bodies, of which there were 138 at one point, wanted research conducted to inform their own policies in the area.
Before long, it was decided that it was better to share this knowledge with the public in an attempt to influence policy in the social justice area.
The office accepted that it was necessary to have a media presence and Sean says with nobody else willing to fill the role he stepped forward to be the public face.
Over the decades that followed, Cori (Conference of Religious of Ireland) Justice, as it came to be known, persistently gathered and presented evidence that greater equality could be achieved with tweaks in the prevailing economic model.
In the 1990s, Cori Justice was one of the organisations added to the social partnership under the community and voluntary sector.
The social partnership model (no longer live since the economic crash of 2008) was a forum in which the government set out future policy in conjunction with employers, trade unions, and farmers.
John Bruton’s government added the fourth pillar, providing Sean Healy and kindred spirits with a degree of influence to shape policy.
He became a prominent public figure, always advocating for a better, fairer way. His profile saw him selected as Corkman of the Year in 2003, but he also had his critics.
The Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrat government at the time chased free market philosophy all the way into the jungle which gave birth to the Celtic Tiger. Ostentatious wealth became the order of the day in some quarters.
Tax rates fell, the minister for finance Charlie McCreevy adopted Santa Claus as his economic adviser — “When I have it, I spend it.” There was no place for grinches pointing out that not everybody was partying.
McCreevy made reference to “the poverty industry” which was seen as a direct hit on Healy.
Then the worm turned.
Addressing Fianna Fáil
In 2004, Fianna Fáil did badly in local and European elections. McCreevy was viewed as being the problem. Bertie Ahern made arrangements to have him elevated to the Euro commissioner job and he invited Sean Healy to a party get together to give a lecture to the troops.
It was technicolour stuff for the media, although some in the fourth estate saw Healy as an interloper.
“It started when we were involved in partnership talks in Dublin Castle,” he remembers.
I read in a report in a prominent newspaper that Bertie Ahern had given me dog’s abuse which was totally untrue.
“Then after a meeting with him, one of his advisers pulled me aside and asked would I be happy to speak at Inchydoney (for the Fianna Fáil pre-Dáil term conference).
“I said no problem, as long as I was free to say what I wanted and free to make it public, and they agreed to that.
“They asked me to keep it quiet until the week before, which I did. Then [when it was announced] all hell broke loose, I got dog’s abuse in some newspapers.
“So when I went down there I opened by telling them, ‘If I was you, I’d wonder why some people have gone to such lengths to try and stop you hearing me’. I though that was fair comment after all the abuse I’d got.”
He made hay in the hotel overlooking the West Cork beach. He presented the parliamentarians with a series of priorities they should adopt in order to chime with the large bulk of voters who weren’t feeling loved by the Tiger.
Most prominent among these was a commitment to benchmark social welfare with rising wages and prices.
“Charlie McCreevy had been giving €4 a week annually or something like that and we would have been a long time waiting to catch up with the rest of society.
“So I set out that an increase in core rates of €51 over three years would be required, and to be fair, they delivered it.” He also told them that the country needed an extra 8,000 social housing units annually but that didn’t come to past.
“If only they had,” he says. “And you’re wondering why we have 150,000 households without appropriate accommodation today?
“If we had continued at the time with 8,000 units we would be clear. I argued then and at the time of the Troika was here that we should be doing it.”
In 2009, Social Justice Ireland came into being when it was decided to move out from under the Catholic Church. He and Brigid Reynolds both felt that a change was needed.
“The organisation (the Church) was not dealing with what was coming out (about clerical abuse),” he says.
The working poor and issues today
A separate body with a structured board was set up. Today, it receives funding from a variety of sources with around 60% coming from research it conducts itself.
Sean Healy sees progress in